New York Times Magazine - May 2, 1999

Why Are We In Kosovo?

It's complicated, but not that complicated. There is such a thing as a just war. By SUSAN SONTAG

The other day a friend from home, New York, called me in Bari -- where I am living for a couple of months -- to ask whether I am all right and inquired in passing whether I can hear sounds of the bombing. I reassured her that not only could I not hear the bombs dropping on Belgrade and Novi Sad and Pristina from downtown Bari, but even the planes taking off from the nearby NATO base of Gioia del Colle are quite inaudible. Though it is easy to mock my geographyless American friend's vision of European countries being only slightly larger than postage stamps, her Tiny Europe seems a nice complement to the widely held vision of Helpless Europe being dragged into a bellicose folly by Big Bad America.

Perhaps I exaggerate. I am writing this from Italy -- weakest link in the NATO chain. Italy (unlike France and Germany) continues to maintain an embassy in Belgrade. Milosevic has received the Italian Communists' party leader, Armando Cossutta. The estimable mayor of Venice has sent an envoy to Belgrade with letters addressed to Milosevic and to the ethnic Albanian leader with whom he has met, Ibrahim Rugova, proposing Venice as a site for peace negotiations. (The letters were accepted, thank you very much, by the Orthodox primate following the Easter Sunday service.) But then it is understandable that Italy has panicked: Italians see not just scenes of excruciating misery on their TV news but images of masses on the move. In Italy, Albanians are first of all future immigrants.

But opposition to the war is hardly confined to Italy, and to one strand of the political spectrum. On the contrary: mobilized against this war are remnants of the left and the likes of Le Pen and Bossi and Heider on the right. The right is against immigrants. The left is against America. (Against the idea of America, that is. The hegemony of American popular culture in Europe could hardly be more total.)

On both the so-called left and the so-called right, identity-talk is on the rise. The anti-Americanism that is fueling the protest against the war has been growing in recent years in many of the nations of the New Europe, and is perhaps best understood as a displacement of the anxiety about this New Europe, which everyone has been told is a Good Thing and few dare question. Nations are communities that are always being imagined, reconceived, reasserted, against the pressure of a defining Other. The specter of a nation without borders, an infinitely porous nation, is bound to create anxiety. Europe needs its overbearing America.

Weak Europe? Impotent Europe? The words are everywhere. The truth is that the made-for-business Europe being brought into existence with the enthusiastic assent of the "responsible" business and professional elites is a Europe precisely designed to be incapable of responding to the threat posed by a dictator like Milosevic. This is not a question of "weakness," though that is how it is being experienced. It is a question of ideology.